This article was found in the December 1952 issue of Progress, the monthly magazine of the Romford Congregational Church
Being the eleventh, and last, imaginary letter from an imaginary uncle to imaginary twins.
Dear Jack and Betty,
Originally I had intended to finish this series of letters last month, but I feel an urge to write one more. It is going to be the hardest of all and it is not a history lesson this time. My urge is to write to you on the subject of your responsibilities and privileges as members of South Street Congregational Church, and of the part you must play if membership is going to be real and dedicated service.
These letters of mine will have failed in their purpose if you have not, by now, realised that our forefathers, the original Separatists, had a deep spiritual conception of the Church, a more serious sense of responsibility and a deeper realisation of the privileges attaching to membership than had existed for many generations.
First of all a Congregational Church is implicitly a Covenanted Church. That is, we have covenanted together and with God, believing as we do that God has redeemed His people and that we have accepted our redemption from and through His Son Jesus Christ. Our covenant not only concerns our own individual lives - i.e. we promise to live individually with God - but also that as a Church we live under the guidance of His Spirit.
Then we make no tests of creeds. That does not mean we do not believe in the great Christian Creeds, because we do. We do not, however, make them a test of membership. More important than creeds is the individual quality of one's life. As Church members we accept from Christ Himself the principle that only life and its quality can be an adequate test for Church membership. You may think from this that Congregationalism, as compared to other communions, has a faith somewhat nebulous not to say anarchic. We have sometimes been described by the ignorant as a communion in which "nobody believes anything in particular." As a matter of fact nothing could be more erroneous. It is just not true that we have been led astray in matters of faith. On the contrary history shows we have always kept in the mid-stream of Christian belief. The error of our critics arises, of course, from our unwillingness to adopt creeds and standards of faith. Yet we have always been willing to draw up statements of faith for both individuals and Churches. What we distrust and resist is any attempt to elevate common doctrinal statements into a confession which it is essential to subscribe to as a condition of membership. From the 16th century onwards, all kinds of confessions and declarations of Congregationalism have been drawn up, but always there has been a tendency to let them fall into disuse. The truth is that we cannot enforce any doctrine or creed on our individual Churches and each Church feels a strong repugnance to coerce individual members.
I think that Congregationalists are among the most passionate lovers of freedom - political or religious. Is not this understandable when you look back on our history? May I quote the following from a little publication of Independent Press:-
"Covenants are only made by free men and from what has gone before the Congregational understanding of freedom should be clear. Freedom for Congregationalists is an obligation. We must be free to worship in ways acceptable to the Holy Spirit; we must be free to listen to and obey the Spirit and we must be free to give God full obedience. Freedom is the necessary condition of our full and happy obedience to God; the means of making the sovereignty of God actual in the world."
If we are distrustful of creeds and passionate in our love of freedom, there is one matter on which we hold strong views, that is the Church Meeting. In no other communion, with the exception of our friends the Baptists, will you find anything like it. It is at once our pride and glory, the very raison d'etre of our existence, and it is most important that you young people should know and understand what a Church Meeting really is. It has so often been likened to a democracy that I must hasten to say that a Congregational Church should not be governed by its members (as in a democratic state) but by the Holy Spirit whose will is made known through her members. We should come to a Church Meeting not to air out own views, nor with the express purpose of voting to prevent Mr. X from getting his way, but to wait patiently on the Lord so that we speak as men and women possessed of God's will. There is a solemn trust laid upon us of devoting and sanctifying every power of mind and heart in fellowship of thought and prayer, seeking after God's will, praying that God will give us the grace to see it and follow it when it is known. Often we are so chained to earthly things and so lack His grace that we are wilfully blind to His clear and unmistakable call.
Now, my dear children, let me warn you that when you go to your first Church Meeting you will probably be bitterly disappointed and disillusioned. Here I have set forth an ideal; in practice you will find things fall very short of this ideal. That, of course, is the measure of our failure, but is it not also a challenge and an opportunity for the future? You may find in South Street Church that varying people have entirely different conceptions of what Church membership really means. Here is a little extract from a recent article in the Christian World, which to me sums up the position.
"In no Church is any man a member save as he confesses in word, honest intention and life his will to make Christ his Lord. But in a Congregational Church something more is required. We covenant with God and with one another to do the will of God, and that involves us in the DUTY of attending the Church Meeting. No, I have used the word 'duty'. I must take it back and use the word 'delight'. It is imperative that attendance at Church meeting should come before any other consideration of any other kind at all. But the imperative is an inward necessity, for our delight is in the company of God's people."
Well, my dear children, this is the end of my series. You are on the threshold of a most wonderful experience. It will give you great and abiding happiness as well as moments of despair and doubt. There will be times when on the heights you will see the Kingdom of God, but there will be valleys to go through which will test your faith to the uttermost. That our Heavenly Father will ever by your strength and stay is the earnest prayer of
Your ever loving
N.B. - As this is the last in this series of articles, it is right that you should know the name of the author: Mr. P. L. Brown [Church Secretary].
The following books have been used by him, and are recommended to those who require further information:-
A Brief History of English Congregationalism - by Albert Peel
History of English Congregationalism - by R. W. Dale
A Manual of Congregational Church Principles - by R. W. Dale
A Popular History of the Free Churches - by C. Silvester Horne
Three Hundred Years - by Albert Peel